Feel Art Again: Jacques-Louis David's "Madame Récamier"

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Today marks the 230th birthday of one of France's most famous socialites, Juliette Récamier. Married at age 15, Juliette was an established member of upper-class Parisian society by the time she commissioned Jacques-Louis David to paint her portrait in 1800, at age 23. Both Juliette and Jacques-Louis led interesting, and influential, lives during the 18th and 19th centuries.

1. When Juliette, at the young age of 15, married Jacques Récamier, a man 30 years her senior, rumors quickly circulated. The most interesting: Récamier was actually Juliette's natural father, who married her to make her his heir.

2. Jacques-Louis David was raised by architect uncles who, along with his mother, wanted Jacques-Louis to also become an architect. Jacques-Louis, however, wanted to be a painter, and later stated, "I was always hiding behind the instructor's chair, drawing for the duration of the class."

3. Between 1770 and 1774, Jacques-Louis David attempted each year to win the Prix de Rome, an art scholarship to the French Academy in Rome. Each year, he lost; he once attempted to starve himself to death in protest of the decision. Finally, in 1774, he won.

4. Juliette grew frustrated that Jacques-Louis worked slowly and wanted to rework her portrait, so she commissioned one of his pupils to paint her portrait instead. Jacques-Louis then told her, "Women have their whims, and so do artists; allow me to satisfy mine by keeping this portrait." The portrait was never finished.

5. Despite its unfinished nature, the portrait and its subject influenced French style: the type of sofa on which Juliette reclines in the portrait became known as a récamier, after Juliette, and the European fashion for Greek attire was sparked in part by Juliette's attire in the portrait.

6. Both Juliette Récamier and Jacques-Louis David were exiled from Paris, though not at the same time. Juliette went first to Lyon, her birthplace, and then on to Rome and Naples. Jacques-Louis was hit by a carriage and died shortly after of deformation to the heart in 1825. Despite his family's pleas, his body was not allowed to return to France for burial, so he was buried in Brussels instead. His heart, however, was buried in Paris.

'Feel Art Again' appears every Tuesday and Thursday.

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December 4, 2007 - 10:26am
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